This essay and accompanying collage were first published for Femme Salée’s zine issue Perverse Bodies, Winter 2021. More about this awesome collective of artists, writers, and curators can be found at Femme Salée.
On Halloween afternoon, 2009, I was running around doing last minute things like my head was cut off. Our inaugural variety show was kicking off that night, at the local community space that had just opened up. One of the many things I realized I’d overlooked was figuring out how to hook up a boombox to the PA system. I burst into a Radio Shack without the slightest idea of where to look, but also with a strong aversion to talking to anyone working there. I called my mom. My brother was around too – mom put the call on speakerphone.
“I need a jack or an adapter or something, to get my boombox plugged in to a PA.” My mom had always helped me rig up my stereo equipment amidst many moves, and my brother had played bass in a bunch of bands; I hoped the two of them together could figure this out for me.
“OK,” he cut in, “you’d need a 1/8 inch jack on the boombox end, and then a 1/4 inch to plug into the PA.”
“OK so, I’m seeing those. There are a bunch of kinds though.”
“Get one that’s male on both ends.”
“What do you mean?”
“Male. Like, it’s protruding out, right? Instead of female, which would get plugged into.”
“I don’t get that.”
“Uhhh, so, the male is what’s getting put in…”
“No, I get that! It’s just, I don’t get why it’s called ‘male’ and ‘female.’ Is that for real?!”
“Yes! Of course I’m not just making this up!” It was the first I’d heard of it.
“I just don’t get it!”
“Yea, that figures.”
As I poured over which product to get, a memory flashed into mind. My brother and I had been vintage Saturday Night Live fiends. We were sitting together, watching Dan Aykroyd as a sleezy late night public access TV host, and Laraine Newman as his guest / date / escort. They’re watching a video of some worms getting it on, making lewd comments.
“These little buggers have both male and female organs. They like to go both ways, AC/DC you know what I mean, heh heh,” Dan Aykroyd’s character jeered. I didn’t have the slightest clue what he meant. But it seemed obvious from all this imagery: Sex is electric. And from that, I deduced that I was doing it wrong.
I had had some electrifying moments, but they were few and far between, and around that time I had been feeling I’d been short circuited all together; from there I just shut down the whole operation. When things had continued to not work like I kept hearing they were supposed to, when nothing ever felt right, I stopped pretending they did and clammed up. Sex was touchy, both the act itself and the topic in general. If a group of friends were laughing about sensational sex stuff, I would get so uncomfortable that I’d just get up and leave, no explanation. I’d just be gone. I didn’t seek out anything that might be arousing because it didn’t seem worth the effort. I was not asexual. I was purposefully squelching my sexuality because things didn’t line up. And since none of it made sense, I didn’t know how to start trying to open back up, even if I had wanted to. Which, eventually, I did. Sometimes I would have wet dreams, and I was glad that at least I had that going on, that thing that is generally a male thing. It was my favorite part about my sexuality. Waking up because I was orgasming felt like the best gift in the world. It felt like a freebee. Because to climax in waking life was a lot of hard work.
Around the time I started to transition medically, a few years after that Radio Shack moment, with hormones and top surgery and other stuff, I felt an urgent need to finally and fully figure out my sexuality. Really force it—reading books, going to workshops, making my spouse come to workshops with me even though they didn’t want to, talking about it exhaustively in therapy (or rather, writing exhaustively and emailing that writing to my therapist), bringing it up a lot with my spouse even though it felt, well, forced. All these efforts helped a little but not much. What did get me there was patience, time, experimentation, thinking creatively, and just feeling out how to be present in my body in other ways.
Transitioning did help. What I can see and feel makes a lot more sense now. My chest contours in a way I can accept, although it’s not perfect. My voice is present and fully-formed, after seeming far off and lost for so long. Broader shoulders and more muscle definition have allowed me to carry myself differently. Getting confirmation that I’m seen as male, mostly, by others, has bolstered everything else (although I identify as non-binary and am not actually a man). It’s my junk though; although it has changed for the better, it’s not enough and I still get hung up on the junk.
And I do mean “junk,” a word with various meanings, one of which is “male genitalia.” I don’t technically have a dick, but in all ways other than the physical realm, I do, and in that discrepancy lies the crux of my transness. Or more specifically, my in-betweenness. Because although there is a strong correlation between genital-dissatisfaction and transness, the two do not always go together. Some cis people don’t like what they were born with either. And some trans people are fine with what they got going on. Others are not at all, and lower surgery is first and foremost; the ultimate transformation. I’m somewhere in between.
A few years ago, I was tasked with designing and creating my own “groinment” for a theatrical production of a tripped-out version of a play called, If Boys Wore the Skirts. In this genderfuck of a fever dream, my three “classmates” and I wore white button-down shirts, black ties, black socks, black shoes, and black skirts upon which we had designed fancy-free versions of our internal landscapes. I was thrilled by the opportunity and took it very literally; here was a chance to come up with something that reflected the way I feel about my junk. If you were to ask me, I don’t have a vagina, clitoris, and labia. Nor do I have a penis, scrotum, and prostate (unfortunately). What I got is junk, and it’s janky AF. But by reimagining it, I’ve started to learn to live with, maybe even love, what I got. In this version I dreamed up for the play, there’s a highly delicate water balloon configuration at the top of a water slide. Pointy party hats are there to protect it. And in my right hand I held a needle: I’m the only one who gets to “pop” it, which I did, during a fashion show scene in the play. The water did indeed gush down the slide and splatter fantastically on the upswing. My ultimate wet dream, cum true.
Content note: sex and sexuality.
Also, spoiler alert for this super obscure film that is probably hard to find, but totally worth it!
My spouse and I just saw The Lure, a Polish film re-envisioning The Little Mermaid (meaning Hans Christian Andersen much more so than Disney, although there are elements from both). It takes place in the 1980s, and these particular mermaid sisters are vampiric vamps who come ashore in order to perform as singers/dancers/strippers. One of them also joins Triton’s punk rock band. There is no sea witch in this version; instead, they are exploited by the humans around them, for their talents. The director likened them to “immigrants, abused by the locals (used in the sex industry) on their way to their real goal—America.” I didn’t quite catch that hidden meaning, although that’s super interesting; I guess I was looking at it through a trans-specific lens, and I saw a bunch of parallels that resonated.
The two sisters have two very different focuses/goals. “Golden” wanted to perform and find her way to America. “Silver” falls instantly in love with the young bass player at the nightclub. Golden, very early on, warns her sister, something along the lines of, “would you be willing to eat him if need be?” While on land with legs, the mermaids have no sexual or excretory organs. They’re paraded around, and it’s said that they’re “as smooth as Barbies.” When water is splashed on them (Think, 80s movie, Splash !!) and their tails re-emerge, they do have a “vagina” of sorts – it’s just super unconventional. Also, they have a strong fishy smell (d’uh!), and another quote from the director, “they represent innocence, yet their odour and slime recalled girls maturing, they menstruate, they ovulate, their bodies start smelling and feeling different.” The reason I’m focusing in on this in particular is because it is Silver’s motivation for what she does throughout the rest of the story. She does want to marry the bassist, but even more clearly, she wants them to have sex, and he won’t, the way that she is. There is a really graphic surgery scene where she loses her tail and gets new, permanent legs, fully formed with vagina and everything else. She gives up her singing voice, as a trade off. There then is a sex scene, which does not go as planned. And then, OK I’m going to leave it at that, to not give away anything more!
I related to this sexual conundrum, as a trans-person. Not literally, of course, but, in a way. Just to cover the base-line, in general, trans-people feel all sorts of ways about sex and sexuality and their own anatomy. It really is all over the map, from person to person. And, as well, I’m sure, there are cis-people who feel a total disconnect, for a variety of reasons. So it’s not really a “trans-specific issue,” but, overall, it is surely more common among trans-people. Following that disclaimer, I’m actually only speaking about my personal experience in the next couple sentences. I do not relate to what I have. And I never did. I’ve created some work-arounds, in my head, over time, that have helped. And I’ve been able to become more present, which is nice. But I still get hung-up. And upset that there’s not a whole lot I can do about it.
I’m not the only one, by far, who is making this connection between trans-people and mermaids. If you are familiar with Jazz Jennings, 16 year old trans-activist, author, spokesmodel, youtube celeb, etc., she has linked the two in some very strong ways. She even has a company called Purple Rainbow Tails, through which she sells mermaid tails she’s made herself raising money for trans-kids. I found a really interesting article that touches on Jazz and mermaids called, Transgender Mermaids. Here’s a quote from it!
Of course, the question that most people ask is “Why mermaids — why not some other animal or creature?” The reasons may be varied and complex, and they may vary with each girl. However, a common theme is that mermaids may hold a special appeal because they have a high level of human feminine facial features and upper body features while having a lower body that isn’t that of a traditional human female. Many transgender girls may relate to this because they know that they are truly females no matter what their genitalia may be.
Also, Mermaids UK is a support resource and advocacy group that has been around since 1995(!!!) focused on helping transgender kids and adolescents, and their families.
I was once in a really obscure play, a reworking and twisting of the children’s play, If Boys Wore the Skirts. The original was “a satire on what may happen if women continue to copy the clothes that men wear. According to this play, in self-defense the men may take to wearing feminine things. Here we see a bunch of rugged males forced into skirts. The setting is a schoolroom in the present.” (Present, meaning 1958.) The version that I was in was a mature audiences, tripped-out dream-like version. As one of the “schoolboys,” I got to imagine and create my own genital-themed skirt, called a “groinment.” I had such a blast with this, probably much more than anyone around me could have known! I’ll leave you with two images of what I came up with: